Australia Chooses Sides — And It’s Not With China

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Photo by US Navy Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes

A U.S. sailor throws a line as HMAS Sydney arrives at Yokosuka, Japan. The Sydney will join the USS George Washington carrier strike group during operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – After months of seemingly mixed signals regarding security relations with China, Australia sent a clear message where its interests lie with the arrival Monday of a frontline warship at the hub of U.S. naval operations in the region.

HMAS Sydney will spend the next several months operating in the Asia-Pacific as an integral part of the USS George Washington carrier strike group. The Sydney’s responsibilities will include providing air defense for the GW and its fleet of escort vessels. It is only the second time in recent memory that an allied warship has joined a carrier group here for purposes other than scheduled exercises.

The deployment comes with rising tension over China’s growing military strength and assertiveness and follows a simmering debate in Australia – apparently now settled – whether to shift diplomatic and security policies away from the United States and toward China.

“This is a very significant deployment because we are the only country that does this — no other Asian ally, even Japan, has a ship assigned” to a U.S. fleet, says Benjamin Schreer, Senior Analyst for Defence Strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in Canberra. “It basically signals to China that, ‘Look, you shouldn’t even try to drive a wedge between us.  We will be there, with our U.S. allies, if required.’”

The GW is expected to begin an extended cruise as early as next month through some of the most hotly contested waters on the planet. China has claimed nearly all of the South China Seas and is engaged in a tense standoff with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, known in China as Diaoyu. A Chinese warship locked fire-control radar on a Japan Maritime Self Defense Force destroyer in international waters near those islands earlier this year; no shots were fired, but the incident ratcheted tensions further. The GW’s area of operation extends from the international dateline in the Pacific to the western Indian Ocean.

No one seriously expects China to challenge, much less shoot at, a battle-ready U.S. carrier group on the high seas. But mistakes have been known to happen. The GW group includes two Aegis-equipped cruisers and seven destroyers, along with the Sydney. Carrier groups typically go to sea with at least one submarine lurking nearby.

The Sydney is a 1980s-vintage frigate that was recently upgraded with Standard and Evolved Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and carries two anti-submarine helicopters. Nominally, the ship will follow the same rules of engagement as other vessels in the task force, though the Aussies would not necessarily be dragged into each and every fight if shooting occurred.

“If I found myself in that position, I would seek further advice from back home. But certainly I would always have the right to self defense,” said Cmdr. Karl Brinckmann, commanding officer of the Sydney.

Australia had steadily toned down its rhetoric since a 2009 Defense White Paper determined that China’s double-digit increases in defense spending and growing regional ambitions were a potential threat.

Australia’s defense chief said in December that joint military exercises with China were “on the short-term horizon.” Last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard agreed during a trip to Beijing to hold yearly high-level strategic talks and to participate in joint military exercises with China.

The newest Defense White Paper, issued Friday, contains noticeably milder language than the previous edition.

“The government does not approach China as an adversary. Rather, its policy is aimed at encouraging China’s peaceful rise and ensuring that strategic competition in the region does not lead to conflict,” the new paper says.

But even if the Aussies are toning down the rhetoric, they seem to be hedging their security bets.

The Royal Australian Navy is set for a major expansion in capability with the arrival of two large, flat-deck amphibious assault ships and at least three Aegis-type destroyers over the next several years.

The amphibious ships — essentially small aircraft carriers that can handle troops and equipment, as well — will operate with a fleet of escort vessels to provide protection from aircraft, missiles, submarines and  surface warships. The Sydney deployment will have the added benefit of giving the RAN practice in operating in large battle groups. HMAS Darwin conducted a similar deployment with the GW strike group in 2011, although it received little attention at the time.

“Up ‘til now we’ve been operating our ships individually,” says HMAS Sydney spokesman Lieutenant Grant McDuling. “But we’ll begin operating as strike groups, and we need to learn how to do that.”